Gurney's Inn
December 06, 2006

A Grave Matter Native American Skull Found

A 1000-year-old skull unearthed in Water Mill prompted an outcry last week.

Last Wednesday, Southampton Town Police were called to a site development in Water Mill after the human remains of Native American origin were found.

The human skull was turned over to the Suffolk County Medical Examiner's office. A forensic study revealed that the skull and other artifacts at the site were determined to be from the "Woodland Period," which dates back 1,000 to 3,000 years ago.

The discovery has sounded a battle cry from those on the Shinnecock reservation who believe the need for legislation regarding grave protection is dire.

The remains were found at the site of the former Hotel St. James , where, according to Southampton Deputy Town Attorney Christine Preston, a stage-three archeological review was underway. The application for development for the four-lot James Kluge subdivision map, filed in 1991, went through the planning board's approval process and was in the midst of the three-part archeological review as a provision of the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

"They had an idea, not that they were going to be finding something of this magnitude, but that there was some sensitivity of the property," said Preston, who added that although one lot has already been built out, the remaining three were thought to be archeologically sensitive, with archeological easements placed upon them. "The reason why they found this was because they were following all the protocol."

But, according to Rebecca Genia, president of the Inter-Tribal Historic Preservation Task Force, the unearthed skull was a call to arms from beyond.

"Another one of our relatives has revealed themselves," she said. "When we get a message from the spirit world, we've got to take it seriously. We can't put the bones of our ancestors into a garbage can."

In recent years, Genia has made the rounds of Southampton, Southold, Riverhead and Shelter Island town boards under the auspices of the Inter-Tribal Historic Task Force, a coalition of Northeastern Native American tribes that believe legislation is crucial to protect both Native American and colonial graves. Genia and other members of the tribe were notified last week after archeological consultant Jo-Ann McLean unearthed the human remains.

"Since there are no laws in place to protect ancient graves, once it's in the hands of a private developer, they could find Abe Lincoln's skeleton, and it would belong to the homeowner," said Genia. "Who develops a cemetery? Who desecrates a cemetery? Criminals."

Genia plans to urge the Southampton Town Board to adopt grave protection legislation "so we can have some kind of recourse and not have to watch the graves of our ancestors being destroyed, without being able to do anything but stand there and cry."

Southampton Town Supervisor Skip Heaney said on the contrary, the archeological procedure subdivision applicants must follow enabled the remains to be found last week. "The protocol put in place to protect Native American interests worked. That's a good thing, not a bad thing."

The supervisor said this is the first time he's faced the issue and the consensus is to seek guidance from the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. Heaney said the town also planned to work with the Shinnecocks so that the remains could be reburied in a traditional ceremony.

As far as legislation, Heaney said the town attorney's office is researching the issue.

Councilman Chris Nuzzi, who was on the scene after last week, said following archeological guidelines and the SEQRA process led to the discovery, and said he wanted to ensure the remains, and the process, were handled with respect.

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